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Sorry Works! Blog

Making Disclosure A Reality For Healthcare Organizations 

Aviation Safety & Medical Errors...This Hand Being Overplayed?

Last week an article appeared on the news wires that reported Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger of the "Miracle on the Hudson" fame is spending a lot of time in his retirement trying to make medicine safer.  In fact, "Sully" is a sought-after speaker for healthcare conferences.  My initial thought was "good"...I hope he makes a difference.  Maybe, if 15 to 20 years ago there had been a Sully (and many others) doing the same work my brother might not have died from medical errors.   But while I'm thankful Capt. Sullenberger is passionate about medical safety, I seriously wonder if the whole approach of comparing/contrasting aviation safety versus medical safety is being overplayed and will have detrimental consequences?  I worry how many docs and nurses are tired of hearing how wonderful pilots are and become jaded or resistant to all patient safety initiatives? We really need to think about this....

I do think there is much to learn from the aviation industry, but I also think we need to be careful in drawing comparisons as I don't believe we're truly talking about an apples-to-apples comparison.  From my perspective, I grew up in a household listening to my PhD engineer Father discuss his experiences in aviation safety and also nuclear science safety. And since my brother died, Dad and I have had A LOT of talks about these issues, and even penned an article together.  In that article, we discussed the differences between healthcare and aviation and the nuclear science field.  There are major differences, including the outside pressures exerted on these different disciplines (some of which are likely never to be changed).  Moreover, my thinking on this topic has evolved further: These different fields are dealing with different "input."

When "Sully" entered a cockpit he was always taking control of a ship that was expertly maintained by highly skilled mechanics.   When a doctor gets a patient in his/her care, the ship isn't always in the greatest shape because the mechanics - us - don't eat right, don't exercise enough, smoke and drink too much, don't listen to doctor's orders, etc, etc.  I recently got myself into trouble with some patient safety advocates by suggesting there are "bad patients" and "bad families."  Never mind that these same patient safety advocates freely labeled doctors and nurses as "bad," "sloppy," "arrogant," etc...how dare I say some patients and families are not so good?!?  Again, medicine has different "input" versus aviation.

There is also more variability.   Sully flew the same type of plane every time...an ER doc should be so fortunate.

Look, I could keep writing for a long time on this topic, and others can and will chip in.  Not my intention to have a drawn out debate and point-counter point discussion.  Just want to raise a flag of caution to say, "Yes, aviation can teach medicine about safety, but don't overplay the hand."

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